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What You Wish For

The issue of the spoiler remains a critical one in cinematic discourse. At this moment, it weighs on this reviewer particularly heavily. “What You Wish For,” a picture written and directed by Nicholas Tomnay and starring Nick Stahl, is one that I went into relatively cold, and that contributed significantly to my enjoyment of the thriller that moves into horror territory (is that a spoiler already?).

So, my intention here is to recommend the movie, which is anchored by a consistently understated performance by Stahl. While only in his mid-40s, his character here, Ryan, looks like he’s had a bumpy ride through maybe more than one dissolute lifetime. His facial features seem to have been sculpted by nicotine and alcohol. After he gets off a plane that’s deposited him in an unnamed South or Central American country, he looks at his phone, expresses silent distress at a text message from a party named “Rabbit,” and naively waves a ten-dollar bill at some locals hoping for a ride into a rain forest. He’s eager to disappear. To his surprise, he’s greeted by a driver who whisks him into the mountains. He is, as it happens, expected. His bro buddy Jack (Brian Groh) is roosting in a gorgeous house, and he’s invited Ryan to hang with him a bit. Both Ryan and Jack are high-end chefs, and Jack’s got himself a high-end private dining gig while Ryan is on the run from gamblers—repped by the aforementioned “Rabbit”—who eventually start threatening Ryan’s mom.

Jack has to drive into town—he’s bought a junk car, deliberately, for obscure reasons (at least at first) to conduct his shopping trips with—and Ryan idly looks at Jack’s laptop and discovers the guy’s got a relatively massive bank account. He asks his buddy about the gig he’s on, and he offers his services as a sous-chef. Jack shrugs that off and later complains that he’s working for “the worst people in the world.” This confounds Ryan a little bit. With this kind of money, in these kinds of settings, what can be wrong?

Well, Ryan finds out, and this is where this reviewer encounters a quandary. Now, if you’re keen on guessing the deal, it might be easy—a friend did it at lunch the other day. The thing was, he was joking. The revelation may strike some as slightly risible, at least. One of the things that makes the movie work is that it acknowledges this fact but then makes the premise terrifyingly credible. The movie’s title, “What You Wish For,” adapted from a familiar adage, implies a variation of a “Talented Mr. Ripley.” Ryan envies Jack’s circumstances without first appreciating that their origins are in something far gnarlier than a patrician trust fund. Once the realization sets in, Ryan’s terror turns to desperation and, even scarier, resignation.

Stahl’s acting has always had a quiet power, communicating roiling emotional distress under an often vaguely menacing stillness. This gives a fresh perspective to Ryan’s eventual impotence as he negotiates his new identity—because Jack indeed leaves the picture about a quarter into the film—and tries to please his very particular clients, fronted by the ever-so-polite Imogene (Tamsin Topolski).

Again, without overtly giving too much away, because this is the choice I have made, much of the movie has the kind of suspense reminiscent of the scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in which Norman Bates is dumping Marion Crane’s car, with her dead body in the trunk, into the swamp behind the Bates Motel. It sinks steadily for a while, then stalls, and we gasp. And we wonder, why are we gasping? We shouldn’t really be rooting for Norman here, but we do. So it is with Stahl’s Ryan. Who, the movie continues to insist throughout, happens to be a damn deft chef.

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

What You Wish For movie poster

What You Wish For (2024)

101 minutes


Nick Stahl as Ryan

Tamsin Topolski as Imogene

Randy Vasquez as Detective Ruiz

Penelope Mitchell as Alice

Juan Carlos Messier as Maurice

Brian Groh as Jack



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